Guest Blog: Social researcher Marty Bortz explores how festivals really can be 'transformational'

Rainbow Serpent 2018

Rainbow Serpent Festival 

I have attended the Rainbow Serpent Festival almost every year since 2002. One thing that I have enjoyed doing over my last few years is speaking to newbies. I am always fascinated by their perspective – primarily because it is something that I will never share. It is safe to say that I have grown with the event. I will never know what it’s like to enter into that world for the first time, without any prior understanding of what it used to be, or with the sense of wonder that comes from experiencing something brand new. 

My favourite refrain from these conversations is ‘Rainbow changed my life’. It always gives me a bit of a thrill to hear that people have stepped into the festival world, and have emerged a little bit different to who they used to be. At the same time, the phrase has always seemed a bit mysterious. What are these changes of which people speak? And how do they manifest in people’s day-to-day life (if at all)? 

Rainbow Serpent 2018 Psymon Photography

Rainbow Serpent Festival 

These questions have driven some of my recent work. In my non-festival life, I am a social researcher. My current schedule affords me the time and space to look into all sorts of interesting areas. Given this, I thought I would take the time to look in more depth into concepts of ‘transformation’. How do events like Rainbow Serpent shape people?

I soon learnt that I am not the only person asking these questions. Currently, a team of psychologists from Oxford, UCLA, NYU and the University of Denver are asking these questions of Burning Man – a similar event in America. The team found that 75 per cent of participants at Burning Man in 2015 had at least a ‘somewhat transformative’ experience. An overwhelming majority of these participants were still experiencing this at least six weeks after. 

Boom Festival 2018 Psymon Photography

Boom Festival 

These transformations relate to psychological changes, exploring new parts of themselves, social connections, and different perceptions of people and things. They also relate to connections with something ‘bigger’, such as a spiritual connection with ‘something larger than themselves’. This is particularly interesting to note, given that religious anthropologists have argued that transformative festivals like Rainbow and Burning Man represent a new form of religious or spiritual experience. 

The practical implications of these changes, however, are less clear. How do they change people’s behaviours? Do we notice any differences in how people behave in the world, or with each other, outside of the event? These questions are being explored by the Burning Stories project currently being run by a team of researchers in Finland

Boom Festival by Psymon Photography

Boom Festival 

Transformational festival culture has also been shown to open up new avenues through which people can work together, in ways that allow for more participatory and authentic practices. Researchers like Associate Professor Katherine Chen, or Dr Duane Hoover have shown how the Burning Man Organisation (the entity responsible for the event) has responded to unique challenges in governance, leadership, and management – with many lessons available for decision-makers in our organisations. 

Global Eclipse Gathering Psymon Photography

Global Eclipse Gathering 

What I have said for several years – and what the research is beginning to show – is that transformative festivals offer us new ways of being. They encourage us to consider who we are, and how we are with each other. They provide us with an opportunity to rethink the world, and to respond to current narratives of consumerism and individualism. In other words, this is more than just ‘having a good time’. Instead, it is an experience with the potential to change us in deep and profound ways and to allow us to reimagine our physical and social spaces, in an attempt to reclaim something that has been lost.

I guess this is what we might mean by ‘transformation’. 


Martin Bortz

Social Researcher and Academic

Additional Reference Reading:

Burning Progeny 

Sage Journal 

Research Gate 


All Photographs in this article are by Melbourne based Psymon Photography, with thanks. Psymon is a photographer who travels the world documenting Festivals and events, filling his lense with colour and wonder. 


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